The 15th-ranked Mississippi State Bulldogs try to keep their perfect season alive on Saturday night when they host the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders in non-conference action.
After winning just two games all of last season, Middle Tennessee has gotten off to a fast start with a 4-2 record, which includes a 2-1 mark in the Sun Belt Conference. The Blue Raiders have already won a very impressive non- conference road game this season over Georgia Tech (49-28), and they are fresh off a 34-30 win over FIU last Saturday. This matchup marks the 14th time in their history as an FBS program that they will face a ranked opponent.
With wins in each of its first six games, Mississippi State is off to its best start since 1999, and it's only the fourth time in school history it has opened a season at 6-0. The Bulldogs have won eight straight games dating back to last season, the third-longest active streak in the nation. They are coming off a 41-31 win over SEC foe Tennessee last Saturday.
"We knew it was going to be a four-quarter battle all the way through, especially with the offensive firepower that they had," head coach Dan Mullen said following the Tennessee win. "I'm proud of how our guys played. I thought we played a great first half on both side of the ball. We came out and stumbled around in the second half a bunch, but as we've done all year when we've needed it, we've made plays."
Mississippi State has never lost to Middle Tennessee in four tries. The Bulldogs won, 27-6, the last time the teams met in 2009.
With 33.3 ppg and 433.7 ypg, the Middle Tennessee offense is one of the best in the Sun Belt, but it suffered a huge blow this past week when it learned it will be without star running back Benny Cunningham for the rest of the season.
Cunningham is the reigning Sun Belt Conference Player of the Week after putting up 230 rushing yards and two touchdowns against FIU, and he ranks 13th in the nation in rushing (120 ypg) and third in scoring (11 TDs). An MRI came back positive for damage in his left knee and he will undergo surgery that will end his season.
"It's very unfortunate on a personal level because Benny is one of the hardest working and competitive players I have ever coached," head coach Rick Stockstill said. "I feel like he has been short-changed the last couple of years because of injuries. I have no doubt he will get fully recovered and have a shot at continuing his playing career at the professional level."
Jordan Parker (213 yards) and Drayton Calhoun (199 yards, two TDs) will take over as the team's primary backs in Cunningham's absence.
Quarterback Logan Kilgore will also need to increase his role in the offense. He's been impressive this season, completing 67.4 percent of his passes for 1,422 yards, nine touchdowns, and three interceptions. Most of Kilgore's pass attempts are fired at Anthony Amos, who is one of the top receiving threats in the Sun Belt with 39 catches, 580 yards, and five touchdowns.
While the offense has soared, the Blue Raiders defense has sputtered, allowing more than 27 ppg.
The unit has only intercepted three passes but has made up for it with nine fumble recoveries. Craig Allen, Roderic Blunt and Kevin Byard are the team's top tacklers with more than 40 apiece.
The Mississippi State offense (35.3 ppg, 412 ypg) has been both spectacular as well as consistent, scoring 27 points or more in all six of its games.
Tyler Russell (230.3 passing ypg) has been fantastic under center. He is one of three quarterbacks in FBS to throw for double-digit touchdowns (12) while throwing for fewer than two interceptions (one). While Russell takes great care of the ball, he would like to improve upon his completion percentage (.577).
LaDarius Perkins is as steady as they come at the running back position. He's rushed the ball 105 times for 599 yards and seven touchdowns, with at least one score in every game.
Chad Bumphis is MSU's go-to receiver with a team high in catches (28), yards (468) and touchdowns (six). Marcus Green hasn't had much volume (13 receptions, 158 yards), but he becomes a big factor in the red zone with five touchdowns.
Despite allowing 31 points to a very good Tennessee offense last week, the Bulldogs defense is still permitting just 16.3 ppg.
Darius Slay (four INTs) and Johnthan Bank (three INTs) lead a ball-hawking unit that has forced 18 turnovers, which is tied for fourth-most in the country. Benardrick McKinney leads the team with 50 tackles.